Once the call was made to go on with WWE Crown Jewel, the second event of WWE’s 10-year contract with Saudi Arabia, one question loomed larger than any other going: What would this thing look like? The promotion’s first Saudi show, April’s Greatest Royal Rumble, was unvarnished pro-Saudi propaganda, even exploiting the Sunni-Shia conflict at one point. This was clearly what the Saudis are paying for. After all, unlike much of their “Vision 2030” plan, the kingdom’s WWE deal isn’t an investment in the company. It was just buying a bunch of shows in the way that overseas promoters long have, albeit on a larger scale. The value for the kingdom in those shows is in the propaganda, and Saudi Arabia is in dire need of good publicity after murdering and dismembering a dissident journalist and the atrocities of its long-running proxy war in Yemen. So, embarrassing as it would be for the promotion, it seemed like there was no way that WWE could get permission to tone it down in its second show. That wasn’t what they were being paid for, after all.
Surprisingly, though, the latest show was pretty much the opposite of Greatest Royal Rumble. As with other WWE programming over the last two weeks, the words “Saudi Arabia” were never mentioned during the event held in that country, with “Crown Jewel” replacing it where the show’s location would normally come up. There was no overtly political content in the broadcast, and for a viewer who went into the show completely cold, the only really noticeable indications that the show was being held in an authoritarian gulf monarchy were a VIP section full of men in traditional dress at ringside, Arabic-language announcers in the same garb, and the introduction of General Sports Authority head Turki Al-Sheikh, referred to as “his excellency.”
Look closer, though, and there was a bit more to it.
On Thursday, the Twitter accounts (one Arabic, one English) for the Saudi General Sports Authority tweeted various videos of wrestlers arriving in the country and giving red carpet-style interviews. The wrestlers, seemingly coached, clearly took great pains to refer only to the “Saudi fans” and “Saudi WWE Universe,” and never to the country or its government. One of the wrestlers featured was Drew McIntyre, who gave a generic comment closing with “our relationship with the Saudi WWE Universe is just gonna get as big as possible; I don’t see a limit to be honest.” The GSA Twitter accounts, though, summarized his comments as “the relationship between the Saudi General Sports Authority and WWE will be greater than before,” adding that “The fans here are very interested.” (Unsurprisingly, the Arabic account said the same thing.) Even if it wasn’t a part of the show itself, the Saudi royal family was going to get some propaganda value out of this trip.
Watch the show closely, with an eye for changes to things that the royal family might frown upon, and there were some other moments that stuck out. One in particular echoed a controversy from the first show in which an ad intended only for the TV broadcast, promoting the return to pay-per-view events featuring both Raw and SmackDown branded wrestlers, was accidentally shown on the giant screens in the stadium. Why was that a problem? Female wrestlers had been barred from appearing at the event, but hey were shown in the ad, lip syncing to a song while wearing their ring gear. In the stadium, it inspired much hooting and hollering, and led to a harsh statement from the Saudi General Sports Authority:
The General Sport Authority would like to apologize to the viewers and attendees of last night’s WWE event that took place in Jeddah, over the indecent scene involving women that appeared as an ad before a segment. It would like to confirm its total disapproval of this, in the shadow of its commitment to eliminate anything that goes against the community’s values.
The authority has made sure to ban showing of any segment that involves women wrestling or any scenes related to it, and stipulated that to the company. The authority also disapproved any promotional stuff with pictures or videos showing women in an indecent way, and emphasized on commitment of this rule. And it’s a commitment that the authority would still commit to forever in all of its events and programs.
It was a mistake that WWE was clearly determined not to commit again at Crown Jewel. Where Greatest Royal Rumble didn’t bring any female WWE personnel to Saudi Arabia, Renee Young was brought over as an announcer for Crown Jewel; she was, unsurprisingly, shown only at the announcers’ table wearing a plain, long-sleeved black top. A little bit later, though, the broadcast aired an ad for the Survivor Series event in a few weeks, which conspicuously featured zero women even though the only announced match—and quite possibly the main event—is Ronda Rousey vs. Becky Lynch. Later, there was an ad for the WrestleMania 35 on-sale date. The ad, which featured WWE’s top female stars throughout, had aired on Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live this week and was also uploaded to the official WWE YouTube channel. Going in cold, the version aired on Crown Jewel may have looked completely normal. Look closely, though, and you’ll realize that there are no female wrestlers in that version. Here’s a comparison:
Whether these ads aired in the stadium or not, we don’t know, but since what happened last time was an apparent accident, it’s possible that WWE was covering all bases. Given the company’s current strong push for its female stars, especially Rousey, and with the all-women’s “Evolution” card having (not coincidentally) taken place five days earlier, the surgical removal of the promotion’s biggest woman stars betrayed that this was still not at all a normal WWE show.
If not for Roman Reigns’ leukemia diagnosis and the need for a new Universal Champion on this show—it ended up being Brock Lesnar in a disappointing math with Braun Strowman—and Shawn Michaels’ return after a 102+ month retirement, Crown Jewel would otherwise be considered uneventful. Michaels was in excellent shape and didn’t really look rusty, but the match between him and Triple H versus The Undertaker and Kane wasn’t much aside from Kane’s mask and wig accidentally coming off near the end. Unless Michaels heads back into retirement, the most memorable moment of the event will be its most unexpected one, for better or worse.
Crown Jewel was built in part around a single elimination “World Cup” tournament to “determine the best in the world.” (Both WrestleTalk and the subscription-based Wrestling Observer Newsletter have reported that the tournament was named the “World Cup” in a weak attempt to one-up Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and regional rival, getting the actual World Cup for 2022.) The finals ended up being between Dolph Ziggler (representing Raw) and The Miz (representing SmackDown) in a battle of villains, which is not what anyone expected. Miz got hurt during their match—whether or not it was legitimate is not yet known, but it looked like it could be—which led to a TKO win for Ziggler. But then SmackDown’s figurehead commissioner Shane McMahon ran out to say it wouldn’t end that way. So he restarted it, inserted himself as Ziggler’s opponent, and...won the tournament.
On any WWE show, this would be weird for a number of reasons. At Crown Jewel, even as an audible, it felt like overt trolling, and not just because the concept of Shane McMahon, World Cup Champion is such an awkward one.
The stranger part was this: Shane had been promoting on Twitter that his wife, Marisa, a former WWE employee herself, had produced the new movie A Private War, which stars Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan and premiered on Friday in New York and Los Angeles; it opens nationwide in two weeks. Pike plays the journalist Marie Colvin, a war correspondent who is believed to have been assassinated by the Syrian government in 2012. The film’s virtues aside, the fact of its existence and the timing of its relief created another strange irony—one of the big winners at an event paid for and hosted by a government that had just assassinated a journalist was... the one person at the event who stood to make money from a docudrama about a journalist who had been assassinated by a middle eastern government. Funny how that works.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.